It is hard for me not to compare my last trip to India and my current adventure. It didn't take long to start feeling the impact of the similarities as well as differences; the two danced around me in a mad tango that created a muddle of opposing emotions. There was the sweet calmness of comfort-- the feeling you get when you realize nothing has changed and all that was so familiar was still there to welcome me back. There was the nervousness of potential change—the feeling you get when you are not sure what all is around the next corner, or not sure if all that has been planned will actually go as planned. (You see, in India best laid plans are often thwarted by… well, whatever seems to be blowing in the breeze.) There was the giddiness of excitement—the feeling you get when you are finally living a much anticipated experience. There was the terror of fear—the feeling you get when you realize you actually have no way of contacting anyone you know in the world (should something go awry), nor do you have anyone you know to help problem solve that issue. All these, and many more, emotions collided within me as I made my way to immigration.
Immigration was where I encountered my first significant difference. I had chosen to proceed to India with the new Tourist Visa on Arrival (TVoA) option, which I had been promised was swifter and slicker than the traditional visa. From the trip preparation perspective, it was. From the arrival perspective, it was a little more rocky. There was only one counter open for the TVoA passengers, and each one of us had to have our passports checked, photo taken, and fingers printed as well as our visa approval documentation verified. The system had some flaws which kept us all from racing through the process, but after about an hour standing in a line of ten people, I was finally on my way to baggage claim.
Baggage claim and money exchange was smooth and familiar. My luggage had beaten me to the finish line was waiting in a deserted corner for me. Money exchange was quick, easy, and exactly how I remembered it. Nice to have some history with these operations.
The next major difference was walking out of the airport. Actually, this seemingly anti-climactic event was a true jumble of difference and similarity. The humid, polluted air felt so familiar. The mass of faces crowded along the barricade was an expected and familiar sight. The smell of… India was a fragrance unforgettable and easily recognizable. The relief of finally making it through the myriad of airport lines was welcomed and familiar, too.
On my first trip to Vellore, I stepped out of the Chennai airport with the liberation of making it through that labyrinth of never-ending lines only to be faced with the next challenge: finding my name on a placard in a sea of strangers holding placards. From one challenge to the next. This time was different. That difference came in the form of a tall, athletic man standing above the crowd with a familiar, vivid smile, and a waving hand. A friend. A face in the crowd in which I could associate a name and memories. In fact, his face was the last familiar face I saw when leaving India two years ago. Instead of an insecure ride from Chennai to Vellore (about two and a half hours) with a complete stranger who spoke no English, I had the pleasure of taking that trip with a friend. It was beautifully different, and yet the careening of cars, incessant honking of horns, and plethora of cattle were all very similar to my first trip to Vellore.
Upon arriving in Vellore, I began to recognize landmarks: the junction that crosses over to the new bus stand, the Sri Shanti bakery outside the back entrance to CMC Hospital (best death-by-chocolate dessert ever), the Pizza Corner (which has since become Papa John’s), and the Darling Residency (where all the international students took their weekly outing). Familiar. Comfortable. Beautiful.
When dropped off at the CMC College, this time I knew exactly where to go and who to see to get my paperwork completed. As luck would have it, she was out on lunch break, but knowing my way around this time I was able to take a rest at the canteen then meander over to Rehab to let them know I had arrived safely. I vividly recall my first trip to the CMC College. I didn't know up from down or in from out. I proceeded with caution and hoped would land safely at the correct destination. This time I proceeded with confidence and trusted all would work out in its own Indian way.
Rehab was welcoming and encouraging, and not much about it has changed. The staff has shifted around slightly. Some students are missing that once where there. Of course the patients are all new to me. But by and large it was as if I had only been gone a few days. The similarity was impressive and yet the difference of my preexisting level of comfort on arrival contrasted throughout the afternoon.
I suspect my continued evaluation, subconscious or otherwise, of the similarities and differences will persist throughout my stay. The dance of the two opposites is simultaneously strange and beautiful. I don’t mind being caught in the middle of that tango…. I don’t mind it one bit.